Natural Horsemanship and CST

by Nigel Williamson

The Fulcrum, Issue 46 Winter/Spring 2009

I’m in a field. There are thistles, rough grass and nettles around me. I’m about to give a course and I’ve had a momentary loss of confidence about my capacity to make contact with horses. I’ve spent a year being with these horses, working with them. Do they really have craniosacral motion? Was it the tide that I was palpating and working with, or was their healing linked to something else, nothing to do with me? I approach the mares Ginny and Sapphie. Surely they will show me something now.

Sapphie, the great Shire horse, ambles up and I gently place my hands on her back. I wait. Nothing. Sapphie has become impassive in the face of my endeavours. I go to Ginny. I say ‘Ginny, do me a favour. I do this with humans. Show me what it’s like for horses.’

I settle myself. Ginny shows me.

This time the power of the fluid drive in Ginny’s system took me by surprise. There was an open-ended quality that was like being in a deep slow current on the ocean floor.

It reminded me of Wordsworth’s observation in The Prelude, in ‘Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’: he became aware of ‘A motion and a spirit that … rolls through all things.’ I felt the mare was showing me something of supreme importance to all mammals, something akin to the vital force itself, a meeting of forces from within and without. Then I thought more about why this was so, why Ginny was being so present and palpable.

This is what I came up with. Every herd of horses has a leader, and it’s almost always a female. It’s not about physical strength, but wisdom. The one in this herd is Ginny and so far she has tolerated my presence on her home territory. Whenever I have worked with the troubled members of her herd, she has generally left me to it, occasionally checking out the results afterwards. She would do this by walking purposely up to them afterwards and seeming to chat (I imagine something along the lines ‘Are you OK? What did Nigel do this time?’) Ginny is the yardstick by which all the other members of the herd measure their survival. In evolutionary and bioenergetic terms, the qualities of energy at her disposal would be the central reference point for the rest of the herd. The long tide she showed me contained the same energy that gave the rest of them their sense of inner and outer direction.

I felt the mare was showing me something of supreme importance to all mammals, something akin to the vital force itself

People have been fascinated by horses for many thousands of years. The sight of a horse cantering free in a field, mane and tail flowing in the wind is inspiring beyond words. Here are 700 separate skeletal muscles, all orchestrated in a body to produce a vision of beauty, power and strength. It’s an archetype. Deep within us, we know that the horse, the winged Pegasus within us, can release a stream of illumination, insight and creativity. In its connotations with liberation and lack of inhibition, we as CST practitioners can, if we wish, treasure this image of potency as one of our own resources.

Just as in people, the core link of the horse’s craniosacral system is made up of the dural membrane between the foramen magnum and the sacrum. Intrinsically everything is the same but there are some important differences.

The spinal column of the horse has 18 thoracic vertebrae; 6 lumbar vertebrae, and the tail has 15–20 coccygeal vertebrae. The horse’s dural membranes contain about 200 millilitres of cerebrospinal fluid; the human body about 150. In vital health I perceive it as snowy and sparkling.

Once we begin to appreciate the qualities and characteristics that belong specifically to horses, we realise the importance of educating ourselves in understanding the damage that can be inflicted by a lack of fundamental awareness of this magnificent animal’s strengths, limitations and basic needs.

What is the potential of such a body in motion? Here’s a look at some physiological facts.

One: Horses are naturally athletic and are capable of a wide range of movement. They may naturally execute movements that seem akin to dressage eg capriole, piaffe, passage and courbette. However, horses are not natural jumpers, partly because of a heavy gut and relatively inflexible spine – nature did not design them primarily for jumping.

Two: A horse’s back is not by nature designed to carry the weight of a rider.

Three: The part of the spine where a rider sits is relatively rigid.

Where is the horse’s home? The home of the horse is the herd, not the stable. Horses need to express themselves as part of their herd. They are naturally bonding animals. This last observation gives special poignancy to the old adage, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’. As the need in a horse for safety overcomes anything else in terms of the hierarchy of needs, under certain conditions the horse will not eat or drink even if he is starving or extremely thirsty. Safety is the first priority.

In good health and as far as possible in their natural environment, horses exude a vibrant, glowing, healing energy. Experiments show the benefits of a group of mares in supporting teenage anorexic girls by reflecting sympathy, compassion, nurturing and resonance. Horses are naturally socially-minded, generous in giving and enduringly forgiving animals. Startlingly real in their desires and intentions, they are in touch with a benevolent and sacred world, the reality of which we can perhaps only hope to connect with in our dreams.

Mark Hanson keeps his horses in a field in the West Penwith district of Cornwall, above a wide sweeping valley. Further away lie the disused mining quarries of the Wheal Alfred, a testimony to a once thriving local Cornish population. Beyond that is the flat blue line of the Atlantic.

This larger field is also the horses’ environment. The finely-tuned arrangement of cranial nerves provide the equipment for an ongoing vigilance. Aside from one short, but deep sleep, most of the rest of the time they will be scanning, surveying and receiving messages from their environment. Their eyes have a range of vision of almost 360 degrees and can easily pick up slight movement a good two or three miles away and the faintest of sounds can immediately engage their attention. In this sense they are truly watchers of the horizon. At the same time, their exquisite sensory apparatus can feel the fall of a leaf on their skin.

I was shunned because, from the outset, the horse concerned could not bear to risk another suffering encounter with yet another predator animal

Given such a highly-tuned system, qualities of presence and careful negotiation of boundaries and distances are of special significance when it comes to craniosacral therapy. For the stallions Ben and Regent the need for healing was immense. Working from two or three metres away was the norm and it took me many months before I could go near enough to place my hands on these horses. When I could safely do so, then I knew it was time to hold the first course.

Julie Simpson reflects on her experiences of learning to work with horses …

Until six weeks ago my only dealings with horses were several craniosacral therapy sessions on two of my clients’ horses – that and riding a donkey in Benidorm in 1973! Recently my son and his girlfriend took over the management of some riding stables. Now several mornings a week at 5.45am I am meeting horses face to face at the stable door, giving them breakfast before putting them out in their paddocks for the day and mucking out stables and putting them to bed at night. I am on the biggest learning curve of my life.

In the few short weeks I have been working with the horses I have become aware how sad, dull and lifeless some of them appear, even though they have devoted owners. Something doesn’t feel right. I went down to Cornwall to work with Nigel and Mark Hanson and the horses there. I arrived with my wellies and waterproof not knowing quite what to expect. Mark and Nigel planned the course beautifully. Their teaching skills and methods complemented each other in focus and content.

Mark, the horseman, slowly and gently expanded on the theories of natural horsemanship. He explained how the way most horses are kept is detrimental to their true being. We as humans are expecting them to live as we live; act and behave as we do; and we even dress them up! Not at all how horses would naturally live. We are imposing our standards and lifestyle on them and not listening to their true natural needs. If they don’t comply with our standards, wants, wishes and desires, we punish them. This whole way of life is destroying the horses’ innate life force.

Mark gently introduced ideas and methods of living, working and training horses that are true to their sense of self, explaining how it is possible to re-ignite their vitality and joy of life.

Nigel described the anatomy and physiology of the horse and how it relates to that of a human, specifically relating it to cranial work. He also led us through some beautiful meditations enabling us at a deep level to reconnect with ourselves and a sense of who we are in the wider field. While working outside with the horses, he held the space so we could connect more deeply with the herd.

We had two sessions working directly with Mark’s herd of four horses in their paddock. Watching and being part of the dynamics of this herd of horses in their natural environment, totally at one with nature, was wonderful. Connecting with horses on a deep cranial level and meeting and being met by them on a soul level is a priceless experience. The deep knowing and trust the horses have in their environment, with nature and with Mark, enabled us to be welcomed gently but slowly into their world. As our energy fields met we were able to listen to and share in their life story as it revealed itself, giving us all a true sense of the wonder and beauty that is held within craniosacral work.

Nigel continues: the story so far has been far from idyllic. My exploration of the relationship between horse and human has sometimes been tough. I have no illusions about the power of these animals. I have been barged over, shunned and dropped. All these incidents have taken place as a result of my inability to truly relate to the horse itself, and consequently to myself. I was shunned because, from the outset, the horse concerned could not bear to risk another suffering encounter with yet another predator animal; barged because I was in another horse’s space; dropped on dismounting because of my clumsiness.

What will have happened to us all by this time next year? Who knows? The horses don’t, and only a human can ask a question like that. Time is, after all, a man-made concept. A duality in perception.

Pursue not the outer entanglements,

Dwell not in the inner void;

Be serene in the oneness of things,

And dualism vanishes by itself.

Chinese Zen Patriarch Seng-T’san (6th Century)


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the CSTA.

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